Back to school
PHOTO PROVIDED Syrah vines were
transplanted to California around the
turn of the century and became the
varietal we now know as Zinfandel.
When I was a kid, I absolutely hated going back to school. Back to school meant closure to glorious summer days in the rocky coves and spruce-drenched hills of Nova Scotia. It also marked the end of another summer as sidekick to my Uncle George.
Uncle George was a dervish of creative energy. Every day was an adventure and on the way he never met a rule he didn't want to break. I worshipped the ground he trundled over in his rubber boots.
At the age of five he enlisted me as a partner in his "farm." We tore up his front yard, covered it with horse poop and planted grapes.
Growing grapes was, in part, an excuse to hang old fish nets across the front yard and mentally debilitate those few neighbors that hadn't already lost their minds when he carted in the horse poop.
The other reason we grew grapes was because George had gone to New York on a business trip and learned that bottles of French wine were selling for hundreds of dollars a pop.
That first summer Uncle George and I managed to raise some edible grapes. They passed muster as less than stellar grocery store grapes, but had little resemblance to the grapes required to make the French wines those New Yorkers were spending big bucks on.
Grocery-store style grapes are not the same as wine grapes. Grocery store grapes are grown in abundance. The farmer makes more money by increasing his tons per acre. To make great wines the vintner actually limits how many bunches of grapes are grown on a single vine. The vine can then focus all its energies on developing the complex flavors of great wines.
My favorite wines are Syrah varietals. They originally came from the Rhone River valley in Southern France. Rhone Syrah vines are old and gnarly. They have to dig way down through dry and rocky hillsides to scavenge for water and nutrients. The vines and grapes are also harassed by a dry hot wind called the Mistral. The end result is tough, little grapes that make deep, dark wines with intense, concentrated flavors of black cherry with hints of pepper, coffee and chocolate.
Syrah vines were transplanted to California around the turn of the century and became the varietal we now know as Zinfandel. They were transplanted to Australia and became Shiraz.
When I went back to school that year I missed the winemaking part of Uncle George's wine adventure.
George loaded the grapes into Aunt Peg's bath tub. Then he stomped around on them in his rubber boots – the same rubber boots he fished and farmed in. The good news was that hardly anyone got to drink the wine anyway. The bottling part didn't go well.
George decided to give the wine more kick. He added extra yeast and sugar.
The extra yeast starting eating the sugar and started passing gas.
If George had used corks to bottle his wine, this would only have resulted in a bunch of popping noises. But George had used his wealth of old rum bottles with screw caps to bottle his wine. The tighter seal of the screw caps made all those bottles compressed gas bombs.
The bottles blew up and threw red wine all over Aunt Peg's white linens in the storage closet and the curtains and walls of the spare room.
Wine became a sore spot with Aunt Peg.
I still hate back to school, but now it means I will be missing my son instead of Uncle George.
Too long ago my son returned from his first day of kindergarten exhausted by the disciplines of raising his hand and standing in lines and keeping quiet. I woke him on the second day from a deep slumber and explained that we needed to get ready to go school.
He was dismayed and said, "I have to go to school – again – I thought we did that."
A little bit of Uncle George there.